Torturing Your Characters

12 Feb

Through my years of writing, I’ve read that it is important for my characters to suffer in some way so that they can grow and become what they need to be in their minds and hearts. I typically do not like to torture my characters too much. I’m as soft in my writing as I am in real life.

Along my journey, I came up with a heroine that was put into an American classroom as a child and spoke nothing but Russian. Moving at a young age had a big impact on how she grew up and moved into the American culture, forgetting her Russian past, despite her parent’s disappointment. To prove her merit, she had to face danger and keep it to herself.

My first sell had a hero with panic attacks, due to an attempt on his life. My second sell had a hero, a rancher that struggled with the wolf entering the county and eating livestock. My third sale had a hero that came back from being a surgeon in the Civil War, recovering and searching for purpose in life.

I had a heroine that lost her family and suffered over selling the family’s vacation home, the emotions on her sleeve affected every move she made. I had a heroine that placed herself in danger in the 1860s because she naively thought she could survive in a man’s world.

But how much is too much? How much can a reader take without being lifted from the page and out of the story? I was told by an editor not to put my heroine on an anti-anxiety pill, even for a short time. Then I had a villain who was mentally ill. He was a bad guy, which seems to be more acceptable, I guess.

I began writing a story about a heroine that had a father with multiple sclerosis and a brother with low functioning autism. Hey, between my family and my job, I know these topics well, but I didn’t enjoy writing about it. Even though it’s said to write what you know, some things can be too close to home.

Lately I’ve been thinking about “torturing” my characters, because I started thinking of an acquaintance I met when I was in college who suffers with bulimia. I thought maybe a supporting character could have bulimia, but when I researched the subject, it was like opening a Pandora’s Box.  For that matter multiple sclerosis can be the same way. Yet, I know there is at least one heroine in a romance novel who has suffered with breast cancer, but I heard it was hard getting the book out there in the first place.

Okay, your turn. How much is too much?


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18 responses to “Torturing Your Characters

  1. Janis McCurry

    February 12, 2013 at 7:22 AM

    Mary, I’m on the soft side as well. Part of it is because “real” life isn’t exciting. 😉 I had an h/h who had conflict because she had a teenage son from another marriage and the hero disagreed with how she’d raised him. Hero, coming from a military background, thought she was too lenient and they clashed. Son hated hero, etc. Since this issue is a HUGE conflict with couples in real life, I thought it was a major conflict. The editor said, “That’s external. It’s not big enough to crash the relationship.”

    I disgreed (in my head) and still do. Real life is derailed by these issues. I’ve seen it happen to friends. Some couples wait until the children are out of the house to live together. I know married couple who are in their mid-50’s and his daughter still throws up roadblocks to the “second” wife, my friend. One of my oldest friends ended up ending a relationship because his kids (late teens) objected. But, real life like that doesn’t sell. Sometimes, you have to go against what you know and bow to the publishing gods.

    • maryvine

      February 12, 2013 at 6:23 PM

      I agree with you, Janis. It is enough to crash the relationship. Perhaps you should send that book somewhere else…

  2. Judith Keim

    February 12, 2013 at 7:50 AM

    I’ve learned (and am still learning) that every h/h has to have a strong internal conflict which makes the external conflict even harder. But if the situation is so dreadful, so hopeless, so depressing,what reader is going to want to read about it? IMHO, it would have to be a very unique story to keep an audience. My problem is that even when I set up a “dreadful” situation, I make it too easy for them to get out of it, which cuts the suspense. Because I write MG stories, the complexity isn’t as intense, though the conflicts are still there.

    • maryvine

      February 12, 2013 at 6:16 PM

      Yes, the balance is crucial. People don’t have a clue what all goes into writing a book. Of course, some of the time we have a hard time figuring it all out too. 🙂

  3. Corina Mallory

    February 12, 2013 at 8:09 AM

    As a reader of romance I can live with pretty much any level of misery inflicted on the protagonists because I *know* that everything will work out in the end. That’s the beauty of romance. It gives readers the freedom to feel those high emotions along with the tortured characters without worrying that any of it will keep them from their HEA. (Have you ever read any Laura Kinsale? That woman puts her characters through the wringer!)

    That said, as a writer, I know I’ve softened some of the things that I meant to put my characters through because it just felt like too much. I think the line, for me, is how much I can do to them while still giving them a semi-realistic shot at surviving and being happy when I write “The End”. If they need therapy along with the love of their life because of the things that have happened during the course of the book? I think that’s ok so long as the reader believes they’ll get that therapy and come out the other side. An editor my disagree, but that’s a far-off concern for me 🙂

    • maryvine

      February 12, 2013 at 6:10 PM

      I like your take on romance novels, Corina. We do know they’ll have a happy ending. Thanks for the Laura Kinsale recommendation. If I read the three books recommended in this comment section today, I will learn a lot. thanks.

  4. stephanieberget

    February 12, 2013 at 8:41 AM

    I have a hard time with torturing my characters, too. But I’m getting better, partly because I’m better at writing the antagonist. The only books I’ve had a problem with is when the author keeps throwing the H/h into bad situations over and over without a moment to catch out breath. Anne Stuart, in her Ice Series, pretty much does everything but kill the heroine and I love those.

    • maryvine

      February 12, 2013 at 5:48 PM

      I will have to check Anne Stuart out. I’d like to see how it’s done:-) Thanks Steph.

  5. Susan Russo Anderson

    February 12, 2013 at 9:44 AM

    This is a great topic and wonderful post. Somehow I think we have to trust the “reader” side of our brain to tell us how much suffering is enough. I always hope I give my h/h just enough to keep reader interest but also to show growth. I realize we’re talking about books and TV is an entirely different medium, perhaps not subject to the same rules of character torture, but there is an historical saga playing in the US on public TV—you know the one I mean—and I was amazed that they let one of the main characters die, but then maybe it was of necessity because the actress had to leave the show.

    • maryvine

      February 12, 2013 at 6:00 PM

      Interesting take on that historical show. Seems to me like TV likes to shock, too.Thanks, Susan.

  6. Jennifer

    February 12, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    I just finished reading the most torturous book (in a good way). There were times that I had to look ahead to see what happened just so I could put the book down and get some sleep. I have such a hard time torturing my own characters though. I want them to be happy so I tend to speed through the conflict. I’m working on it. BTW, the book is The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons if you want to check it out.

  7. maryvine

    February 12, 2013 at 6:04 PM

    Thanks, Jennifer, for the name of the book. I think if I read these three books mentioned in this comment section, I will learn a lot.

  8. Peggy Staggs

    February 13, 2013 at 9:16 AM

    I see it all the time on TV and in books, torture just for the sake of torture. It weakens the character’s believability and detracts from the story. There’s a point where the character is so tortured they aren’t logically redeemable. If the story loses its logic it falls apart.
    I believe characters who struggle against/with something (a past, or a present) is a stronger story component. Gibbs on NCIS, with the murders of his wife and child. Sherlock on Elementary, with his drug addiction. They’re truly tortured. The underlying torment that both characters struggle with daily gives them a human quality and an inner strength that makes the reader/watcher root for them.

  9. maryvine

    February 13, 2013 at 6:22 PM

    Peggy, I think you’ve got it down. Characters who struggle against/with something is a stronger story component. Thanks.

  10. marsharwest

    February 13, 2013 at 6:51 PM

    Love this post, Mary. Yes, I always struggle with making them to perfect. My CPs have given me a lot of grief over this. It’s hard for me to have the bad stuff happen to my H & H and other characters. But, I do. Not as much as many others. Some authors’ books I’ve put down because I couldn’t stand what was happening to the characters and my fear of what was coming made me nuts! I do think the key is figuring out what the internal thing is that keeps them apart.
    I write soft romantic suspanse. People get beaten up, killed, and kidnapped, but still it’s softer than lots of others.
    In my 3rd book, I’d unexpectedly included some little dogs. When the bad guy broke in, I realized something would have to happen to the pups. I was sick. Literally sick. So hard to write. They survived. They had to. I couldn’t have written the scene with them being killed. I’d have pulled them from the story. I know others would have blithely killed the dogs and loved the angst that caused. No, no, no. Not me. Thank heavens I write romance with a HEA!

  11. Lynn Mapp

    February 13, 2013 at 7:42 PM

    Too much is uncomfortable. I’m not a good person to listen to on this topic. I really hate when bad things happen. I try to protect my “people.” I’ve got to grow a tougher skin and let them deal with the poop that flies.

  12. Suzie Quint

    March 29, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    I’m obviously in the minority here. I love torturing my characters because then they get to draw on unsuspected strengths and show what they’re really made of. They don’t get to shine or grow if they don’t have to face things that make them unhappy or uncomfortable. Not to mention, that my characters, much like everyone else I know, tend to be their own worst enemies. 😉

    • maryvine

      March 29, 2013 at 7:12 PM

      Very well said, Suzie. Thanks for stopping by.


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